The following commentary was written by Justin Gillis and Hal Harvey, the authors of “The Big Fix: Seven Practical Steps to Save Our Planet,” published by Simon & Schuster. Gillis is a former reporter for The New York Times. Harvey is chief executive of Energy Innovation: Policy & Technology LLC, a nonpartisan climate policy think tank. See our commentary guidelines for more information.
Climate change is the overarching challenge of our time, yet its enormity can make people feel powerless. For many, the ability to affect change seems limited to politicians and bureaucrats in unapproachable halls of power.
People may feel powerless, and approach the problem by changing what they can: their own behavior. They switch to electric vehicles, make dietary changes, or install solar panels. But in our new book The Big Fix, we highlight “hidden” levers of power that can transform our world — we just need to know where to find them, and demand better from our government officials.
State and local governments are called the laboratories of democracy because even a single person can spark change with far-reaching ramifications. Levers to spur climate action are as close as your local school board or city hall, even if they’re less obvious than studious recycling or hoping for Congressional legislation. And billions of dollars in funding from the new Inflation Reduction Act means local action should now be more successful than ever.
Ditching diesel on the way to school
How we move through the world shows how demanding more from local officials can lead to climate action. Transportation is the United States’ largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and our climate goals require rapidly transitioning from gas-powered engines to electrified ones. While electric cars dominate the headlines, electrifying trucks and buses is an equally important part of the solution, and the transition empowers students and concerned citizens to use their voices.
High schoolers in Phoenix, Arizona, showed up month after month to lobby their school board to buy an electric bus, noting the harmful air pollution belching from diesel school bus tailpipes. Students and parents in Montgomery County, Maryland, lobbied their school board to buy electric buses, making a financial case to skeptical officials that electric buses save money over the long run by cutting fuel and maintenance costs, even if upfront costs were higher. That board made a commitment to change out its entire fleet.
These examples are a blueprint for action. Success begets success and convinces doubters. Every victory makes the next one a little easier and accelerates emissions reductions. Cities, municipalities, and school boards purchase thousands of vehicles for their fleets every year, and letting your local officials know those vehicles need to be electrified will have an outsized impact. The new law can help speed this transition by applying billions in incentives for commercial electric vehicle fleets to improve the economics of fleet purchases.
These decision-makers are required to listen to you, by law
Public utility commissions are among the most influential government bodies in America that most people don’t know about. They control the power companies, which means they control a quarter of U.S. emissions, while also determining your electricity rates, approving new power plant proposals, and deciding electric company profits. These boards are legally bound to listen to the public and make decisions based on the public interest. Here’s another hidden lever of power that concerned citizens can pull for climate progress.
Despite the hugely consequential nature of utility-commission decisions, the public often fails to engage with them, leaving utilities to dominate the hearings. That gives an outsized voice to those with a vested interest in continuing fossil fuel dependence and the status quo.
But we can change that. It’s not necessary to master all the complicated rules to have an influence. You can just sign up for emails from a clean energy advocacy group in your state, then respond whenever they ask for public support. The louder the public clamor for clean energy, the more pressure commissioners will feel to get your state moving.
PUCs can also make better climate decisions with more clarity from state legislatures. More than 30 states have legal requirements to source a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. But in many instances, the targets were met long ago and need strengthening.
Demanding your state legislators set more ambitious clean energy goals is another way to win climate victories. The new law’s clean energy incentives make wind and solar more affordable, meaning that adding clean energy isn’t just a sensible environmental decision, it’s an economic one.
Better buildings mean fewer emissions
Drafty, poorly insulated buildings need more energy to heat and cool. Until we transition to a cleaner grid, that likely means burning more coal or gas to supply that excess power across the grid or in your home. That’s where the next hidden lever comes in — building codes.
Building codes are generally set at the state and local level, making the country a hodgepodge of different standards varying in stringency. In many places, codes haven’t been updated in years, so new buildings are often far less efficient than they should be, given efficiency and appliance advances. Local elected officials often don’t have building codes on their radar, or if the issue does come up, they hear from builders rather than the people who live and work in inefficient buildings.
Local officials need to hear from their constituents that codes should be strengthened and better enforced. Less energy consumed equals fewer emissions. Improved codes also generally make buildings safer and more comfortable while cutting consumer costs, benefiting more than just the climate. And the Inflation Reduction Act’s efficiency incentives make it affordable to meet updated buildings codes, relieving energy burdens and protecting vulnerable households
Pull the lever, use your voice, and demand better
Historically, it seemed as though the only paths forward for climate progress were waiting for the federal government to act or making better choices in your personal life. While both are important, the new federal funding creates a massive opportunity for state and local governments to make policy decisions that cut emissions and consumer costs.
If climate citizens engage in this issue, fill the void, and demand better, we can spark enormous progress. Let’s take notice, use our voices, and pull these hidden levers.